January 26, 2004

Mental Health Symposium spotlights new approaches

Jon Moor is associate director of public information for the Carter Center.

Larry Fricks, a director in Georgia's department of mental health, introduced an exciting, new and successful concept in mental illness recovery at the 19th Annual Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy, Nov. 5-6, 2003.

Fricks' idea was one of many discussed at the symposium, where experts and policymakers from around the country brainstormed ways to implement recommendations in the July 2003 report issued by President George W. Bush's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health. The commission declared that the nation's access to and delivery of mental health services was inadequate for existing need.

Almost 20 years ago, Fricks was near suicide, hospitalized three times with bipolar illness and arrested on another occasion, all while abusing substances. These ordeals inspired him to realize the power of believing in his own recovery, and today he not only is in full recovery but has translated that recovery into leadership.

Experiences like his are the foundations of the 3-year-old Certified Peer Specialist Project with the Georgia Mental Health Division, the only project of its kind anywhere in the nation. It's based on empowerment through contact with others who have mental illnesses. To date, Georgia has 163 peer support specialists, and more than 2,500 people have received their services.

Following is a conversation with Fricks about the new project.

How does your peer specialists project relate to the commission's report?

Let me explain it this way: If there were two doors and one said, "That door is medication and symptom reduction," and the other said, "That door is recovery and a quality of life, meaningful life in the community," which door do you think a person would want to go through? They want to go through that second door--recovery and a meaningful life. They may need to go through the other door once in a while, but what we had before was only that first door. When you go the recovery route, you're more likely to take the medication, especially if we see it helps us improve our quality of life. It's going to save taxpayers millions of dollars, and it's going to work. It's morally the right thing to do, and Mrs. [Rosalynn] Carter is exactly right: It's the start of putting funding toward what we believe is the cutting edge of treatment with self-directed recovery.

Could you give me some examples of how it works?

We don't replace medication or the role of the psychiatrist or psychologist. We are an agent who realizes that recovery can be enhanced by teaching people skills to manage their own illness and their own recovery. So we teach those skills and a wellness-recovery action plan. People learn why they have good days and bad days. We train against negative self-talk. We teach goal-setting and problem-solving. People are shown how to write individual service plans to identify what they want to do with their lives, and then tie treatment back to those goals.

So who delivers the information is the key?

That's exactly why we're doing this. We believe a peer hears it better from another peer. Not only are you role-modeling recovery, which sends a message of hope, you've also walked in that person's shoes and can relate to the stigma, hopelessness and frustration.

The Carter Center's mental health program is dedicated to diminishing the stigma against mental illnesses. What would you say remains the greatest challenge in reducing this stigma today?

Surprisingly enough, I think employment is very important to people with mental illnesses. We are the most unemployed group of people with a disability, and yet when we find and keep meaningful work, we literally experience a symptom reduction. The other thing that happens is that, on the job, attitudes change; when I work next to you all day, you're going to maybe discover that schizophrenia is different than you thought it was. I believe in looking strongly at efforts that support employment. That will fully integrate us. It will give us choice.